Entertainment

Netflix’s 'Squid Game' Subtitles Mar the Pride of Seeing a Korean Show Succeed

How will people learn about our culture if the streamer is mistranslating our language?
October 8, 2021, 1:42pm
Squid Game
Photo: Netflix

I can’t recall ever feeling personally attacked by subtitles before Squid Game. My French partner and I binged the Netflix show – now poised to become the most-watched show in the streamer’s history in any language – just in time to watch the show take off globally. But I found myself often getting worked up and hitting pause to explain what was actually being said in Korean, because the subtitles were just plain wrong. 

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I’m not the only Korean or Korean speaker who has noted the vast inconsistencies and errors in Squid Game’s subtitles. Youngmi Mayer, a biracial Korean-American TikTok user and the co-host of the Feeling Asian podcast, went viral earlier this week for tweets and a video that broke down specific mistranslations that, in many cases, altered the meanings of scenes and characters’ motivations.   

“If you don’t understand Korean you didn’t really watch the same show. Translation was so bad,” she tweeted. “The dialogue was written so well and zero of it was preserved.” At the time of writing, her TikTok video had gained more than 12 million combined views across different platforms and is her most viral TikTok to date, with coverage on outlets including the BBC, the Independent, NBC and Salon.

I reached out to James Chung, a Korean-American translator based in Seoul, Korea, to not only hear his experience watching Squid Game as a professional but to also better understand what might have gone wrong. “I watched Squid Game with other bilingual friends and we would pretty frequently look at each other in confusion whenever there was a weird translation for the subtitles,” he says. “The English subtitle was reasonable for some basic lines, but then there would be glaring issues for culturally specific lines or for portions that were put in for subtle character development.”

“It's possible that lines are shortened to let the subtitles fit the screen, which also sometimes happens for English to English subtitling, but that didn't seem to be the case for most of the issues here.”

For Chung, the most glaringly mistranslated scenes include one in which the unpredictable Han Mi-nyeo begs the so-called genius Sang-woo to pick her for his team.

“The translation had her be submissive and slightly more explicitly sexual – ‘I'll be your dream girl all night. I'll do anything you tell me. I'm not a regular girl’, versus the original Korean where she tries to show off her ability to outperform expectations, which is approximately, ‘I'll do whatever you say. If you found out what I could do, you'd be blown away.’” 

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“This again is about her trying to tell people how they shouldn't underestimate her, rather than just purely a desperate plea. This sort of dialogue is constantly used to illustrate her cleverness, but I think the translations did not do her character justice.”

He also brought up instances when well-known Korean words like “oppa,” an endearing and sometimes flirtatious term for an older male friend, used by Mi-nyeo, were totally ignored or poorly translated in subtitles as “old man” or  “babe”. In other cases, “ahjumma” – a potentially insulting word for older woman – said by the North Korean defector Sae-beyok to Mi-nyeo – were totally omitted from the subtitles. 

There is an alternative option for those who would like improved subtitles. Netflix offers two translations for English speakers: “English subtitles” and “English [CC] (Closed Caption) subtitles”, which are intended for the hard of hearing and include soundtrack notes and descriptions of background noises. Chung describes the “non-CC, English-only” subtitles to be “far, far superior”. Some on Twitter believe that the former translation is based on the original Korean script, while the CC one is a direct translation from the dubbed English script. Many Netflix accounts – like my own and Mayer’s – are programmed to use CC subtitles automatically.

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The English-only translations, though, still miss the mark. Take for example the first scene Mayer broke down in her TikTok, when Mi-nyeo tries to convince the other players to team up with her. In the CC version, the subtitles read: “I’m not a genius, but I still got it work out. Huh?” Viewers watching the English version had a slightly more accurate translation: “I never bothered to study, but I’m unbelievably smart.”

Per Mayer’s original breakdown of the scene, the English subtitles still miss a “huge trope in Korean media – the poor person that’s smart and clever and that just isn’t wealthy”. A better translation, Mayer continues, would have been, “I am very smart, I just never got a chance to study.” 

Even with the better English subtitles, there were still many key Korean elements that went amiss or completely disappeared. How will people outside our heritage learn and become familiar with Korean culture if the go-to action is to remove the very elements that make it Korean? For Koreans like me, the watering-down feels like erasure. For English speakers, especially Americans, it prevents meaningful exploration and understanding of Korean culture. No one benefits in the long run from easier-to-digest but incorrect translations. 

But several days on from Mayer’s viral TikTok, a small but vocal group of people on social media claimed that she was spreading “misinformation” and turning people off from watching Squid Game. A handful of tweets and TikTok comments even demanded an apology from Mayer herself. 

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“I actually got a lot of emotional responses from Asians,” Mayer says when I catch up with her over the phone. “‘Why are you harming Korea? You’re making people not watch the show.” Their rebuttal to my posts was that there is a better option… Even though [that] is a poor option? How does that make it okay? I can’t speak more on this as I am not hard of hearing, but a bunch of people don’t know the difference between closed captions and subtitles.”

In fact, she says she was inspired to make the TikTok after seeing a closed-caption subtitle pop up during Squid Game that described the “upbeat music playing” as “Oriental” – a term that now is considered antiquated and offensive.

“That word usually catches me so off guard,” Mayer says. “Now we know that that was for closed captions, and that’s when I realised how bad they were. I just felt like so much of the show’s writing was missed. My intention was never to attack anyone or their jobs. I know translating is hard and that translators work hard in a thankless job.”

I asked Mayer if she, like me, had noticed how a lot of people who responded to her online assumed she isn’t Korean or a native Korean speaker. “I am biracial but grew up in Korea, where I was born, and a bit in Micronesia, Saipan,” she says. “I graduated high school in Korea and only came to the US when I was 20. I understand the pain of not being Korean enough but some people [on the internet] really go hard on me.” 

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But Mayer does have some people on her side. “My mum – who lives in Korea – was telling me [my Squid Game content] was on the Korean news. It’s cool that Koreans in Korea are supportive and excited that someone is standing up for them.”

Like the Koreans in Korea, I saw Mayer’s Tweets and TikTok that started this subtitles saga as a rally for Koreans to speak up confidently about Netflix’s bad translations. Her TikTok validated my conflicted feelings – that we could be both proud of Squid Game’s success and frustrated that Netflix messed up its subtitles. 

How did Netflix’s big-budget production and now most popular show get it so wrong? Were there bilingual sensitivity and cultural readers consulted on the translations? Did Netflix even attempt to convey the easier-to-grasp Korean sentiments and cultural insights? Netflix did not respond directly to multiple requests for comment.

Because of the rise of Korea’s economy and the soaring popularity of Korean culture abroad during this millennium, many people don’t know or are quickly to forget that Koreans have had to overcome a lot – historically and in more recent years – to get to where we are today. Koreans have endured and survived wars, colonialism, imperialism, dictatorship, the 1997 Korean financial crisis and more.

Fuelled by centuries of overcoming hardship, we’re a resilient, vocal, and proud bunch. Why do we have to settle for anything less than the best when it comes to interpretations of our culture today, in Squid Game subtitles and beyond? 

In the latest episode of the Feeling Asian podcast, Mayer’s co-host Brian Park says: “I’m feeling very proud to be Korean, maximum Korean excellence. I love whenever this happens because I call my parents and they’re like, ‘Have you been watching Squid Game?’ And they just go on and on about how amazing Korea is as a country.” Mayer grins: “Being proud of being Korean is such a Korean emotion.” 

Earlier this week, Squid Game director Hwang Dong-hyuk himself hinted that there might be a Season 2. Netflix, please hit us up when this happens.

@eileenwcho